Projected Detroit Lions Final 53-Man Roster, Pre-Training Camp Edition
Training camp kicks off in less than two weeks for the Detroit Lions, and the preseason quickly follows. Between now and the Week 1 contest with the New York Giants, the Lions must whittle down the roster from 90 to just 53 players.
Most of the final 53 are eminently predictable. This is a team with few starting position battles and several reserves who are guaranteed spots.
After the minicamp and OTA sessions, my predictions for those final 53 players have changed some. This edition features two unconventional twists to go with some potential surprises.
Matthew Stafford is the unquestioned starter and aims to take every regular-season snap. He's missed just 44 reps in the last three seasons, almost all of those due to garbage-time rest. His spot as the franchise quarterback is secured for the next several years.
The Lions signed veteran Dan Orlovsky to serve as Stafford's primary backup. Orlovsky replaces Shaun Hill, who left via free agency. This is his second tour of duty in Detroit.
It's not a complete lock that Orlovsky makes the team, though his history with coach Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis likely secures the backup gig.
The third quarterback spot is where Caldwell faces a big decision—actually, two decisions.
First, will it be Kellen Moore or James Franklin? Moore is the incumbent, a third-year pro who has yet to be active for a regular-season game. Franklin is an undrafted rookie from Missouri. The two youngsters offer quite divergent skills, which makes their battle as much about style as performance.
Moore is accurate and efficient in the pocket, though he's not much of an athlete and lacks a requisite NFL arm. Franklin is a mobile gunslinger but struggles with precision and decision-making.
Their combined relative lack of wow factor leads to a second decision for Caldwell: Does he keep just two quarterbacks?
That was his typical choice when he was the head coach in Indianapolis. Granted, his starter was iron man Peyton Manning, but Caldwell's history shows that he likes to carry just one reserve at quarterback. The third will reside on the practice squad.
I believe the choice here will be Franklin over Moore, but he'll spend his rookie season on the practice squad and not the 53-man roster. That offers more flexibility elsewhere.
Final spots: Matthew Stafford and Dan Orlovsky (two)
There is not a lot of drama here. As with the quarterbacks, it's more about quantity kept than which players fill those spots.
It's debatable who will be the starter, but both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell will see extensive action as they did a year ago. They're one of the most effective and productive tandems in the league.
Bush and Bell are coming off a season where they became the first duo in NFL history to put up 500 yards each as both rushers and receivers. That feat will be tough to replicate, but the talent is there to challenge.
Theo Riddick remains as the third back. His workload is expected to increase in his second season. Riddick offers the same sort of versatility and style as Bush, cementing his value to Detroit.
Fullback Jed Collins came along with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi from the New Orleans Saints. He knows the new scheme and fills a position long missing in Detroit.
Those are all locks. The questions come with how many depth players are kept behind those four.
Mikel Leshoure sits fourth on the running back depth chart. The veteran was the feature back in 2012 but saw just two snaps in '13. His lack of special teams contribution hurts his cause to make the team. However, the Saints offense tapped into the depth at running back quite a bit, and Leshoure offers inexpensive proven depth.
The bigger wild card is undrafted rookie fullback Chad Abram. He has legit NFL skills at that position, although it will be his prowess on special teams that earns him a roster spot. It's imperative for reserves to contribute on those units, and Abram was a standout there at Florida State.
Holdover Montell Owens earned that special teams ace role in 2013. Two knee injuries kept him off the field for all but one half, however, and he lacks Abram's upside. Steven Miller's only real chance to stick on the roster is by winning the return-specialist gig, but that seems highly unlikely.
An unexpected trade of Leshoure would open a spot there, too, though the beneficiary of such a move might not be in Detroit right now.
Final spots: Joique Bell, Reggie Bush, Jed Collins, Theo Riddick, Mikel Leshoure and Chad Abram (six)
Tight end is another position where there really isn't any drama.
First-round pick Eric Ebron doesn't exactly fit the profile of a traditional tight end. He's in the hybrid tight end/wide receiver mold of Jimmy Graham. Of course, an arbiter recently ruled that Graham is in fact a tight end, so Ebron remains under that banner as well.
He joins Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria, the two who shared the tight end role last season.
Pettigrew re-signed with the Lions after not finding any greener pastures on the free-agent market. He will be the primary in-line tight end, a meaty role in the offense. While his targets might decline, he could still wind up playing 600 snaps. Ben Watson filled that role in New Orleans last year and racked up over 500 snaps for the Saints.
Fauria exploded onto the scene as an undrafted player from UCLA, catching seven touchdowns in his first 12 receptions. Even though he played well in a more expanded role late in the year, his 2014 fate is likely as a red-zone and short-yardage specialist.
Undrafted rookies Jordan Thompson and Jacob Maxwell are competing for spots on the practice squad. The depth chart is so set in stone here that Michael Williams, the team's seventh-round pick in 2013, converted to offensive tackle in order to bolster his chances to make the team.
Final spots: Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew and Joseph Fauria (three)
Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate will be the two starters; that much is certain. They make a formidable duo that could combine for close to 200 receptions and well over 2,500 yards. In fact, they are likely to be the only wideouts who see regular extensive action.
With Ebron serving as a de facto third wide receiver, the rest of the snaps are going to be dictated more by game situation and matchups.
Ryan Broyles is penciled in as the top slot receiver, but he has major durability questions. The second-round pick in 2012 has blown out both knees and torn an Achilles tendon in the last three years. He did participate in minicamp, which portends well for the Oklahoma product. He is a candidate for the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
Last year's No. 2 receiver—thanks to injuries to Nate Burleson and Broyles—was Kris Durham, but he's in a major battle just to make the roster in 2014. His lousy performance in an expanded role pits him in a battle with Jeremy Ross and Kevin Ogletree for depth spots.
Ogletree and Ross both have Lions experience and offer a little more potential than Durham, though the latter's impressive size at 6'6", 216 pounds and blocking give him a fair chance. Ross doubles as the return specialist, which keeps him on the roster even if he loses the battle for wideout reps.
The sixth-round pick from 2013, Corey Fuller, is trying to ascend from the practice squad, where he spent his rookie campaign. This year's sixth-rounder, TJ Jones from Notre Dame, is also hoping to make his mark. Jones stands a better chance to make it, as he's more polished and possesses extremely big and strong hands.
Keeping just two quarterbacks opens up an extra slot for a wideout, and that's how Durham sticks around.
Final spots: Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Jeremy Ross, Ryan Broyles, TJ Jones and Kris Durham (six)
Four of the five starting spots are already set:
- Left tackle Riley Reiff
- Left guard Rob Sims
- Center Dominic Raiola
- Right guard Larry Warford
In addition, both combatants for the right tackle position, Corey Hilliard and LaAdrian Waddle, are going to make the final roster.
That's a pretty strong top six. That strength led B/R colleague Matt Miller to rank Detroit's offensive line sixth in his recent listing.
The rest of the reserve spots seem fairly obvious, especially if the Lions opt to keep nine instead of the standard eight. Again, the flexibility gained by keeping just two quarterbacks and not using another spot on a straight return specialist affords Detroit an advantage here.
Third-round pick Travis Swanson will make it for sure. He is Raiola's designated heir at center, but he can also play guard. Detroit is handling him just the way it did with Reiff, grooming him behind the veteran starter before passing the torch his way.
Rodney Austin can also play both guard and center. Based on his strong offseason performance, he figures to make it as well. Swanson and Austin figure to battle for the game-day active reserve spot, per DetroitLions.com's Tim Twentyman, but at this juncture it would be a surprise if both fail to make the final 53.
The fourth tackle will get that elusive ninth spot. Undrafted behemoth Cornelius Lucas has the inside track over J.B. Shugarts and converted tight end Michael Williams, who seems destined for the practice squad. That's the likely fate for one or two other undrafted free agents currently on the team, namely A.J. Dalton.
One possible alternate scenario is the team releasing Sims, who has missed offseason activities thus far and carries a relatively hefty salary-cap hit. That would mean either Swanson or (more likely) Austin impressed enough to ascend into the starting lineup.
Final spots: Riley Reiff, Rob Sims, Dominic Raiola, Larry Warford, LaAdrian Waddle, Corey Hilliard, Travis Swanson, Rodney Austin and Cornelius Lucas (nine)
The lack of roster drama continues at defensive end. Detroit has a clear-cut top five, and all should be considered relative locks for the final 53.
Ezekiel Ansah enters his second season as the starter on the right side. His 8.5 sacks as a rookie validated Detroit's risk in taking him with the fifth overall pick in 2013, and his future is quite bright.
Veteran Jason Jones returns to the starting lineup as the left end. He held down that job a year ago before getting injured against the Arizona Cardinals. Jones can play end or tackle, which gives him roster versatility. In fact, his best role is probably as a rush tackle, though the Lions already have two pretty strong ones.
The primary reserve figures to be Devin Taylor. The 2013 fourth-round pick showed some vitality as a rookie. Like Jones, he too can slide inside if the coaches desire an unconventional look.
Journeyman Darryl Tapp is more of a pass-rushing specialist as the fourth end. He has experience playing outside linebacker as well, and that helps cement his roster spot.
Fourth-round pick Larry Webster is bound to make the final 53 even though it's highly unlikely he sees more than scant action as a greenhorn rookie. Webster possesses loads of athletic potential, enough that another team would surely claim him if the Lions tried to waive him through to the practice squad.
Of the other three ends currently on the roster, Kalonji Kashama has the best chance to pull off the big surprise. The rangy rookie from Canada by way of Eastern Michigan appears destined for the practice squad, however.
Some have projected that Jones gets lopped as a salary-cap saver, but that seems unlikely to me. Should that unexpectedly happen, however, his replacement is almost certainly not currently on the roster.
Final spots: Jason Jones, Ezekiel Ansah, Devin Taylor, Larry Webster and Darryl Tapp (five)
The top three here are set in stone for 2014. Next year, however, is a much different story.
Both starters, Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, are in the final years of their respective contracts. They are both former first-round picks who have proven to be impact talents and the building blocks of the defense.
Suh is reportedly in phenomenal shape entering camp, per NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport (via Around the League's Marc Sessler). He's a legitimate defensive MVP candidate, especially if he can cut back on the senseless penalties.
Fairley has been maddeningly inconsistent in his first three seasons, but there is no doubt he can take over a game when he's motivated—ask the Chicago Bears. Offseason surgery for sleep apnea can only help him in his quest to earn a lucrative new contract.
Top reserve C.J. Mosley is also a free agent after the coming season. He's a solid contributor who accepts his role and goes hard on every snap.
Fifth-round rookie Caraun Reid is poised to man the fourth tackle spot, though that is not a given. He must get functionally stronger and more aware before he can contribute much in the NFL. He will have to beat out prodigal Lion Andre Fluellen and '13 preseason stud Jimmy Saddler-McQueen.
Fluellen, now in his second tour of duty in Detroit, offers the ability to play end as well. He's a smart player who gives high effort even in practice, which gives him a legit chance to hold on to his job.
This is another position where someone not currently on the Lions could come in and take over the final spot, too. That is a real possibility if Reid proves unready and starts his rookie campaign on the practice squad.
Final spots: Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley and a mystery player not currently on the roster (four)
Detroit has one of the more underrated linebacking corps in the NFL. Returning starters DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch are both coming off strong seasons.
Levy broke out in 2013, picking off six passes and emerging as one of the best coverage linebackers in the entire league. It's unlikely he finishes near the top in interceptions once again, but his solid all-around play will continue.
Tulloch was instrumental in Detroit's midseason clampdown on opposing rushing attacks. He's instinctive and tough. The veteran did fade late in the year, notable particularly in his range in coverage. Still, Tulloch is a real asset in the middle of the defense.
Rookie Kyle Van Noy figures to see the bulk of the action as the other outside 'backer. Like Levy, he's incredibly versatile, able to range in any direction and consistently make the smart play. What sets him apart is his pass-rushing proclivity; Van Noy will blitz a lot and figures to move all over the formation to create matchup issues for opposing offenses.
Tahir Whitehead is a special teams ace, enough of one that his spot is safe even though he's barely played any defensive snaps in his two years in Detroit. His role on the defense could expand, as his pass-rushing ability is a better fit with new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's more aggressive style.
Ashlee Palmer was the third starter in name only last year, as the Lions' base defense was a 4-2-5 alignment. He's in a real fight to keep his roster spot this year. Because he has contributed on special teams and flashes strong run defense every so often, he squeaks onto the Lions once again.
If anyone can unseat Palmer for the final spot, it's likely Julian Stanford. Undersized at 6'1", 230 pounds but lightning quick, the Wagner product has worked both inside and outside. Undrafted rookie Justin Jackson and underwhelming Travis Lewis are also in the fray. 2014 seventh-rounder Brandon Hepburn appears bound for the practice squad once again.
Remember, Darryl Tapp can also play outside linebacker. That means the Lions have little reason to keep more than five, and if the team opts to keep three quarterbacks, it's not out of the question that Detroit keeps just four here.
Final spots: DeAndre Levy, Kyle Van Noy, Stephen Tulloch, Tahir Whitehead and Ashlee Palmer (five)
- Darius Slay. The only real lock to make it, the second-year player from Mississippi State is being counted upon to make a big jump in 2014. He's the closest thing the Lions have to a No. 1 corner.
- Rashean Mathis. The veteran played well in his first season in Detroit, though at 33 it would be nice if the team were less reliant on Mathis finding the fountain of youth once again.
- Bill Bentley. The plucky third-year pro has manned the slot with relative competence—when healthy. If you're looking for a breakout candidate in the secondary, Bentley is a smart choice.
- Nevin Lawson. Detroit's fourth-round pick will compete with Bentley for the starting slot role, but he can also play outside with his long arms and hawkish nature.
- Cassius Vaughn. A free-agent import with experience playing under Caldwell in Indianapolis, Vaughn has impressed so far according to Paula Pasche of the Oakland Press and is a good stylistic fit for Austin's defense.
- Aaron Hester. Hester has good size, standing 6'1" and weighing a sturdy 207 pounds. He ran a blazing 4.37 40-yard dash this spring at UCLA. During his draft process in '13, I graded him as a fifth-round talent. He's a sleeper you can use to try to win those "predict the roster" contests.
- Chris Greenwood. He's physically quite similar to Hester at 6'1" and 193 pounds, but due to numerous injuries, his development from raw small-school stud has largely stalled. This is his last chance to stick, and desperation could be his salvation.
- Jonte Green. After some positive moments as a rookie in 2012, Green has struggled since. The former sixth-round pick faces an uphill battle but could surprise.
- Mohammed Seisay. The undrafted free agent from Nebraska is a true workout wonder, though he wasn't skilled enough to start for the Cornhuskers. He has practice squad written all over him.
This is the toughest position to forecast. There are nine players currently on the roster, and eight of those have legitimate chances to earn a spot.
In order of likelihood, here are there chances:
As with the defensive tackles, it wouldn't surprise me if the Lions brought in an outsider to take one of the depth positions.
Final spots: Darius Slay, Rashean Mathis, Bill Bentley, Nevin Lawson, Cassius Vaughn and Aaron Hester (six)
One starting spot is for certain. Glover Quin played quite well in his first season in Detroit, finishing 11th in the Pro Football Focus (subscription required) safety ratings in 2013. The converted cornerback stood out for his short-range coverage and strong run support outside the tackle box.
Free agent James Ihedigbo comes over from Baltimore, where he ranked 16th on that same Pro Football Focus list. However, that performance stands out as a stark anomaly to the rest of the 30-year-old's career.
Ihedigbo projects as the other starter, though if he's not up to the task, the Lions do have other options.
Foremost is Isa Abdul-Quddus, a free-agent signing from New Orleans. He was a starter for the Saints in Detroit's last playoff game following the 2012 season, and he's also quite strong on special teams.
Veteran Don Carey offers versatility, as he played both safety and nickel corner for the Lions last year. He wasn't very effective in coverage, however, earning a minus-8.5 rating in just over 200 snaps from Pro Football Focus. The team signed him to a long-term deal this offseason, so his spot is safer than his uneven play probably merits.
Holdover DeJon Gomes would be a very tough cut. He played well on special teams and has proven he can attack the run in limited duty. He too has starting experience from his Washington days.
Undrafted rookies Jerome Couplin and Gabe Lynn appear locked in a battle for the same practice squad spot. Couplin, from William & Mary, earned the nickname "The Osprey" for his amazing length and closing burst. Lynn, an Oklahoma product, is a more refined player who took a big step forward as a senior Sooner.
Final spots: James Ihedigbo, Glover Quin, Don Carey and Isa Abdul Quddus (four)
Punter Sam Martin was a godsend as a rookie in 2013. Other than one bad game, the fifth-round pick from Appalachian State performed quite well. He doubles as an above-average kickoff specialist to boot.
The Lions are hoping draft lightning strikes again with seventh-rounder Nate Freese. The former Boston College kicker holds the inside track to win the place-kicking gig. Freese did not miss a single field goal last fall.
Long snapper Don Muhlbach gets almost no publicity, but he's quietly one of the best at his position. He's entering his 10th season in Detroit. Like Martin, his roster spot is unchallenged.
Final spots: Sam Martin, Don Muhlbach and Nate Freese (three)
All advanced statistics are from Pro Football Focus, which requires a subscription for premium content.